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Home » Culture and Criticism

Prisoners: What else is missing

Submitted by on November 30, 2013 – 8:38 AM3 Comments
Wilson Webb / Alcon Ent.

Wilson Webb / Alcon Ent.

Movies' understanding of "working class" or "poor" interiors doesn't work; it's distracting. I'm talking about the physical design of the homes, the tables and couches. The implication is that the character or family in question has had to "make do" with googie dinette sets in the kitchen and festive trios of hobnail glass on the mantle. The polished Edwardian frames arrayed on the sturdy oak side table, on a doily that could pay for a month's groceries…could the character have saved these beauties from her grandparents, got lucky at a few garage sales? Sure. Enough times to furnish every room in the house? The reality is scuffed eggshell walls, listing futons and sports-team afghans, no time to thrift for funsies. One thing I admire about Kids is the matter-of-factly precise rendition of Manhattan in the summer without much money, that the indoors is like a submarine, every cubic foot in play.

Prisoners translates "early winter in Pennsylvania" perfectly; it's shot by Roger Deakins, longtime Coens DP, and Deakins knows just how to give you a dreamlike rainy day (the third in a row) where the sun never quite comes up and you never quite get dry and warm. Indoors, it looks like an Anthropologie shoot. That's Prisoners in a nutshell, alas: smart and nuanced about many things, flummoxed by and silly about many others.

I wouldn't consider the plot one of its strengths, either. On Thanksgiving Day, as the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) chill with wine and trumpet-playing, their grade-school daughters wander back to the Dovers' house to try to find Anna's (Erin Gerasimovich) red whistle. An hour or two passes. The girls don't return. Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) remembers a weird RV the girls tried to climb on earlier in the day; the owner, a "touched" boy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is rousted from it and questioned — and when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't make a case against him, Keller Dover (Jackman) vows to get the information the old-fashioned way.

The interminable scenes that follow, of Keller (the name means "cellar" in German) (…yes, I know!) beating and torturing Alex for information he doesn't have or can't give, don't really explore "how far a man will go to save his daughter." Denis Villeneuve, who directed Incendies, thinks they do, but like some interludes in Incendies, they stray away from other plots without intention, leaving the viewer to wonder why nobody is looking for Alex, say, or how Keller expects him to fare in an old building without heat, or why we were told Dover Sr. ate a gun in that building and orphaned Keller as a teenager, or why Keller doesn't see that pummeling Alex isn't working and ask him the one question the kid might be able to answer, which is: "Left them where?" Howard as Franklin Birch, fellow grieving father turned blanching accomplice, shows signs of taking us there, wondering how far is too far, what justifies extra-legal measures — but then inevitable we cut away to something else, bodies in Father Len Cariou's basement or another lovingly shot scene with Alex's aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo), who raised him and apparently has a fondness for Jim Jonesian eyeglass frames. Look how frumpy — she doesn't even have cable! Harmless!

Incendies had a pretty good twist at the end, but Villeneuve fetishized that twist — and some hideous overacting by a couple of his stars — while at the same time not connecting with the idea that he was directing a thriller and not a Bergmanesque drama or play of ideas. Prisoners has the same problems, and while the underwater pacing is weirder than it is bad, Jackman is weird and bad. Keller Dover stalks everywhere and yells everything; it's as though Jackman gargled with a cocktail of broken glass and Sean Penn's execrable silent-film performance in Shitstick River. Howard and Davis, even amid an Idiot Plot, take the time to feel things and respond to them thoughtfully. Jackman is just shouting.

And then, at the same time, Gyllenhaal is quite wonderful. He's loaded up with 25 extra pounds, a few tic-y references that don't quite add up to traits (a childhood spent in the system; a strangely Jimmy Darmody hairstyle paired with an Amish buttoning up of his shirt), the surname of a trickster god, and no respect from anyone, families or his captain. He's also getting little guidance from his director, I suspect, but he doesn't need it, because one of the things I love about the movies these days is getting to watch Gyllenhaal think onscreen, figure things out. I love his "hmmm…OH [dashes off]" sprints into and out of frame in Zodiac, paired with Robert Downey Jr.'s "good meeting? …freak" faces, and I love what he does here. He's wrenching open huge Tupperware containers and finding things that make him say "ahhhhhhfuck," and he's thinking the whole time, processing. It's not a showy thing; it's inviting, and he always does it (Brokeback, Jarhead — even The Good Girl, which I haaaaated, he's letting the gears turn).

Melissa Leo gets some lipstick to stay on the pig with her perfect delivery of an implausible explanation, that brings the radio audience up to date on an even more implausible set-up; the movie is, with the exception of Jackman, well-acted, and until you get to the end and realize you've seen variations on said twist done far better in two other languages (and it's…not really a twist in the end), it's fairly entertaining. But at said end, after 153 minutes of Jackman scenery-chewing and logey sidebars that lack the confidence to justify their length, you wonder what just happened, why you should care, and when you can expect The Loki Chronicles to come out, because you wish you could watch that instead, because it would know what it's about.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    As I get older I've become much more aware of art direction, and how hard it is for American directors to grasp the subtleties of class strata in America.

    (Some good examples: Election, Tracy Flick's bedroom with all the inspirational posters in her bedroom, Sideways, the mom's cheap mass-stamped duplex with the piles of laundry and assorteds on the stairs, waiting to go up.) But I've seen far, far too many bad examples of "only Poors shop at Sears for 800.00 sofas!" to counteract it. Twin Lay-Z-Boys are NOT an indicator of No Money–those things run at least a thousand bucks each.

  • Kara says:

    I like to play "how much would that actually cost?" particularly with shows and movies set in New York. It's very rare that show runners get how little space most New Yorkers live in. The Adjustment Bureau was pretty "meh," but I liked that Emily Blunt's character, a dancer, lived in a tiny crappy studio.

  • WhangoTango says:

    " It's very rare that show runners get how little space most New Yorkers live in."

    This is partly because it's very difficult to shoot in a realistically tiny apartment. If you barely have enough room for three people to eat dinner sitting down, then you certainly aren't going to get a whole camera crew plus lights and a boom mike in there.

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